The bar for mountaintop survival films is set pretty high after Kevin Macdonald's incredible Touching the Void. And though director Gonzalo Arijon's revisit to the 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Flight 571 in the Andes is well told and often riveting, it lacks the intimacy and profoundly existential examination of what Joe Simpson and Simon Yates endured in Macdonald's superior documentary.
The infamous ordeal of 16 Uruguayan soccer players who resorted to cannibalism in order to survive has already been chronicled in journalist Piers Paul's best-selling Alive, its mediocre 1993 Hollywood adaptation (starring Ethan Hawke) and the 2006 survivor memoir Miracle in the Andes. Still, Arijon saw an opportunity to contextualize the event in broader social terms while meditating on the self-sacrificing community that allowed these young men to triumph over certain death. While he doesn't dwell on their cannibalism, he doesn't avoid the topic either. Instead Stranded confronts the pragmatic realities of their situation and how the group wrestled with its decision.
Bringing the men's strong religious upbringing into focus, Arijon confronts the moral and theological dimensions of their choices while examining the dynamics of team cooperation that kept them working toward a common purpose (they were teammates, after all). It's this spiritual meditation and sense of unity between the survivors that makes his documentary a testament to the nobility of human nature, offering a lesson for selfless cooperation to the rest of us.
It's also this respectful but overlong film's biggest flaw. By endlessly lauding his childhood friends, Arijon skips the specifics of their interactions and virtually ignores the aftermath of their experience. He paints each man as human-sized saint, doing and being his best in the face of horrific adversity. Individually, however, the survivors barely register as people. All their doubts, fears and hopes are dealt with in the aggregate so, despite their commendable honesty about what they suffered, we actually learn very little about who these men are.
What we do get is a very good sense of their physical ordeal, illustrated with effective re-enactments that drop the viewer into mountainous desolation. Using tried and true documentary techniques — archival footage, talking-head interviews, first person accounts, dramatic re-creations — Arijon communicates the lay of the land, what the survivors faced and just how daunting a challenge two members faced as they hiked away from the crash site in search of help. By the end of the Stranded we truly understand the incredible scope of their journey. If only we better understood the individual men who faced said journey.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 6, and at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.